Two weeks after a devastating attack at a Florida high school left 17 people dead, schools throughout Central Texas are contemplating how to shore up security and address worries from parents and students amid walkouts calling for stricter gun laws and a recent series of threats that led to lockdowns, searches and arrests.
One of the first threats to emerge in Austin in the fallout of the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., came eight days after that attack. Police said a former Akins High School student, who had been kicked out for failing to attend, went into the campus and showed students a backpack filled with ammunition, a loaded magazine and smoke bombs.
An arrest affidavit says the former student, 17-year-old Ariel Alex Ramirez Navarro, said he planned to shoot and blow up the school.
The threat prompted a four-hour lockdown and a hunt that eventually ended with Navarro’s arrest at the Southpark Meadows shopping center.
In the days that followed, more than 1,500 area students walked out of their campuses to call for tighter gun laws to protect them.
While some were banding together to march, a handful of students were crafting their own threats of violence.
On Monday, Round Rock police sent extra officers to Stony Point High School after authorities found a threat scribbled on a bathroom wall about someone bringing a gun to the campus. Two days later, on Wednesday, officers arrested two Round Rock charter school students for making terroristic threats. School officials and police have declined to share details about that incident.
In Killeen, a 12-year-old student was arrested Wednesday for making terroristic threats against several district campuses, including at Roy J. Smith Middle School, where the girl is a student.
The next day, Killeen police arrested an 11th-grader at Harker Heights High School for threatening to shoot students during class, authorities said. The student was charged with making a terroristic threat and taken to the Bell County Juvenile Center, school officials said.
“Threats of violence against our students, our teachers, our staff and our facilities will be met with the strongest possible response,” Killeen school Superintendent John Craft said in a statement. “We will not allow the safety of our schools to be threatened, and we will aggressively pursue criminal charges against anyone who makes these threats.”
On Wednesday, a former Leander school district student was arrested by Travis County sheriff’s deputies after he posted what administrators called “disturbing” images to his Instagram account.
Viet Quoc Duong, 18, who had been removed from the Vandegrift High School choir while he was still a student last year, expressed “resentment and animosity” against choir members in a series of angry posts online, an arrest affidavit says. Authorities said Duong had posted a picture of himself sitting in a church pew during one of the choir’s performances at a local church, with a caption that said, “Coulda shot up that church and it would’ve felt like Disneyland,” followed by a picture of him in a vehicle holding a gun.
Duong was also charged with making a terroristic threat.
This week’s incident notwithstanding, Leander school district spokesman Corey Ryan said most of the cases the district investigates aren’t threats at all, but reports of possible suspicious activity.
In one such case, he said, a photo of a person holding a gun circulated through the Leander community, but the image was traced back to a person in Colorado. In another one, a parent called 911 after mistaking a part of a bench as a weapon.
“I think everyone is on high alert, so we are hearing a lot more and things are getting reported,” Ryan said.
Ryan said the district strives to provide students with a safe and secure learning environment, and plans to beef up security measures over the next few years. All district elementary schools already have single points of entry, so no one can enter the facilities without passing through an office and being identified, he said.
Voters in November approved added security measures in the district’s middle and high schools, including creating single points of entry, the ability to lock down or contain certain parts of campuses and additional cameras.
Authorities in Pflugerville and Temple also reported numerous threats to their campuses there.
Pflugerville school district spokesman Steve Scheffler said the district has reached out to parents several times over the past couple of weeks to stress that authorities won’t take any threats lightly.
School officials “talk about how even making casual comments that seem kind of off-the-cuff will be taken seriously,” he said.
Even if a student is making a joke, Scheffler said making threatening comments can have grave consequences.
“I think (students) are beginning to understand how serious it is, if they didn’t already,” he said. “We are reinforcing it with them and with parents.”
Austin school officials said the district has seen a decrease in the number of threats to the district over the last school year, but they’ve had a spike in reports since the Florida shooting.
District Police Chief Chris Evoy said that while the threats at Akins resulted in an arrest and a third-degree felony charge, not every case will result in criminal prosecution. Depending on the circumstances of a case, school administrators might be able to handle discipline instead of pursuing charges, he said.
“We want to make sure that we treat everybody fairly,” he said. “What we are looking for is safety.”
Evoy said that he’s seen a lot of changes in more than 20 years with the district, including the advent of social media and the ability to quickly disseminate information to a large audience. The district wants to communicate with students, parents and teachers quickly and effectively, but officials don’t want to contribute to panic, he said.
“The biggest challenge is to validate the information that is out there,” he said. “You want to make sure you look at it, assess the situation and take appropriate action. If there is overreaction, it is just going cause a domino effect. That doesn’t help safety.”
All the districts encouraged students and parents to report any suspicious activity to authorities so police can investigate, follow through and keep kids safe at school.